On the blustery expanse of San Francisco's City Hall plaza, Alex Sheshunoff positions himself for an on-camera television interview to promote E-The People, his new online political action service. In jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue shirt of subtly Western design, Sheshunoff looks every inch the archetypal American up-and-comer. “E-The People,” he tells the camera, “is really about local people fixing local problems. You should be able to get your congressperson's attention with a letter, not a check.”
A casual observer might take the lanky Sheshunoff for a media veteran—he knows how authority should sound, and he delivers his sound bites with deceptive spontaneity. Only when the interview ends do clues emerge that the 24-year-old entrepreneur is working without a net: He exhales sharply, rolls his eyes, and rubs his palms together in a way that hints of a cold sweat. “Don't worry,” says the sympathetic cameraman. “It'll get easier over time.”
“How much time?” Sheshunoff wonders.
“Oh, six or seven years.”
To a man who lives his life on Internet time, where new ideas become fads in a week and obsolete in a month, this must seem like an interminable stretch. Sheshunoff launched New York Now, an entertainment and listing service, the day he graduated from Yale with an undergraduate degree in history. Within a year, he'd spun the concept into a content-providing company, Studio Now, which employs a staff of 20 in its Greenwich Village offices. But he admits he always wanted more: “You can only reap so much meaning selling online restaurant guides,” he laments.
These days, www.studionow.com whisks its visitors to www.e-thepeople.com, where the concerned citizen can punch in her zip code, select from a database of 140,000 elected officials around the country, and electronically file a personal complaint. This “interactive town hall” also assists organizations in developing letter-writing campaigns, petition drives, and online fundraising. And it's all free. Sheshunoff hopes to keep the venture afloat with ad revenues, most of them gleaned from partnerships with media affiliates (some 40 newspapers and TV stations, including the New York Daily News and the Houston Chronicle, reportedly have signed on). “But the business aspect of it is secondary,” he contends. “We want to make money only as far as we can continue to make it available for free to activists and nonprofit groups.”
So Studio Now's profits are paying for diesel fuel and fast food on the “grassroots express,” a gargantuan blue-and-silver bus carrying Sheshunoff, two of his staff, and a documentary filmmaker around the country. “It's literally a vehicle for getting the word out,” quips Sheshunoff.
A digital service for social action has long been a dream of everyone from civil rights activists to religious groups, but so far no one has managed to harness its potential for nonpartisan purposes. “There were a lot of people talking about the intersection of democracy and the Net,” he says. “There were not too many writing the code.”
Schemes to enhance democracy inevitably sound naive or transparently self-serving, be they from progressives or reactionaries. It's taken someone blessed by the American Dream—and whose politics lean toward the nonpartisan—to work out a practical method of mending things. The son of an Austin, Texas, banking consultant and grandson of the inventor of aluminum-coated cookware, who fled the Bolsheviks to make his fortune, Sheshunoff is steeped in American can-do-ism.
Earlier, at a stopover outside a West Hollywood fundraiser with California Senator Barbara Boxer, Sheshunoff declares, “People perceive government as an impenetrable entity. We believe a lot of well-meaning elected officials need to get more customer feedback.”
“I agree,” says Boxer. “The Internet is a valuable tool, and I want to be the cybersenator.”
A few hours later, at Gaviota State Beach, a crusty stretch of coastline slanted sideways into the surf near Santa Barbara, Sheshunoff distributes E-The People promotional Frisbees. The lifeguard says he doesn't have a computer, but is quick to offer up an issue: The commander of nearby Vandenburg Air Force Base wants to ban surfing after a number of drowning deaths in unusually powerful post–El Niño riptides. “It's our only West-facing beach and it's going to be closed,” gripes the bleached-blond 40-year-old. “And all because of a few tourists who don't understand the ocean.” He takes the Frisbee and vows to get wired. Back on the bus, Sheshunoff is ecstatic. “That's awesome,” he says. “We got a U.S. senator and a lifeguard.”
The way Sheshunoff sees it, this is postmodern patriotism—a free-for-all forum where politics are exposed to the light. “Maybe through the Internet,” he says boldly, “we can make patriotism cool again.”